Conversations July 31, 2010

Saturday, July 31, 2010

5:30 AM. The John F. Kennedy Library has 10,000 photos in its Hemingway collection. I don’t know what the rules are for use but that’s enough source material! You could find 500 close-ups — more than any book could ever use — and it would still be only 5% of the collection. Which is to say, there would be enough source material, right there.

I’m very tired, very sleepy, this morning. And I suppose I should mention “Hemingway knee” for what it’s worth. Every night as I lie in bed, my right knee aches, sometimes violently; it gets stiff. Sometimes during the day, too, come to think of it. As far as I know, it doesn’t have a physical component, but it is strictly psychosomatic.

Come to think of it, that brings up a subject, papa — you and physical pain. It seems to me you must have gotten awfully used to it, in your lifetime. For such an intensely physical man you certainly had an amazing string of injuries. I haven’t ever happened to see your horoscope, but it must have some terrific squares in it. And, say, that brings forward another question that I haven’t quite had in the front of my mind, but that has been formulating. So, take your choice of questions: (1) something about the role of pain in your life and (2) your attitude toward (or against, rather!) mystical or occult fascinations such as, I gather, both your mother and later Hadley were drawn to.

No need to choose. We can deal with one, then the other, and if not today, later, depending on where the material leads us. What do you want to know about pain and me?

How did it affect your life?

You’ve seen that no biographer fails to mention the string of strange accidents I experienced. Some people like Gertrude Stein chose to pretend to believe that I was “fragile” but that was just her choosing the jibe she figured would annoy me most. More commonly, people assumed I was clumsy and actually unskillful at things I pretended to know very well, for once people discovered that I romanced about one or another aspect of my life, they assumed that I must be a complete phony and a liar, and so nothing I claimed could be true. (I wonder how I persuaded the men at the docks to pretend to weigh me in with all those fish?) And others engaged in your “psychiatry without a license” and tried to find deep currents of self destructiveness in me that led to some of those things, like the skylight that fell on me in Paris.

Yes, those are the three sorts of reactions I’ve noticed, plus another that just assumes you were unlucky.

That’s the one I would have subscribed to myself. I didn’t have a lot of patience with mystical explanations of common sense things.

I’m going to challenge you on that. I think it would be way more accurate to say that one member of the Hemingway person-group didn’t have any patience with what it dismissed as hocus-pocus. But another member of the group was highly superstitious — and I mean what look like trivial superstitions, not just trivial expressions of deeper understandings — and a third closely related member of your person-group was very closely tied to Catholic ritual and mystic participation. And for that matter I think your life was shot through (if you’ll pardon the expression) with an attitude that mingled the physical and non-physical in practice but not in theory. It’s just that these members of your person-group weren’t all that well acquainted.

That’s an interesting perspective, and pretty much true. There is a whole essay here on how we live more or less unaware of how we live. I’ll leave it for you to write, as your mind is a lot more theoretical than mine, but I see the effects of the situation, now you bring my attention to it. And it merges your two questions nicely.

We’re always being stage-managed, I figure. I certainly am. Most of my bright ideas come out of the blue and oh-so-coincidentally seem to lead to some place I have been being led to already! And the guys — including you, I suppose — sit there oh-so-innocently saying “Well gee whiz, look at that. Who would have thought we’d wind up here?” I’ve come to expect it. To rely on it, in fact.

So — your reaction to the insight or let’s call it the theory?

As I say, it seems obvious to me now. And although you might think that as soon as we’re dead we get all the insight into ourselves, that’s only true in a way. In another way, we become conscious of something only when something lights it up, as you have just done. That’s another essay for you. Make a note.

Part of me reacted to any mention of — no, this isn’t for me. We’ll have to get at it in a less abstract less theoretical way.

Let’s go back to pain.

All right, pain. It’s part of life, right? We learn that early enough. Especially if you’re going to get your enjoyment in the open — hunting, fishing, even farming — anything physical — you’re going to lay yourself open to the possibility of getting hurt. And I intensely loved the world, and being in the world, so I was out in it as much as possible. I know it’s unfashionable in your world you live in, but in my world we had a code, and the code said real men were tough and could take it. In practice, women had to be tough and take it too, but there was a difference in kind. Men were expected to be strong and if need be violent. Women’s strength was expected to be in endurance and in extension, come to think of it, rather than in violence. In other words, men expanded the boundaries, women held the world together. Your time may not like the division, although I can’t quite see why not, but anyway it corresponded to our lives. It met our circumstances.

Anyway, men could take it — and that meant being able to deal with pain. It also meant being able to deal with fear and do what had to be done, regardless, and why anybody would make fun of that value just doesn’t make sense to me, and never did. Is there some value in being un-able to cope with pain or fear?

None that I can think of. Maybe in my time we see it as less gender-related.

That’s just because you don’t understand what you think we thought. We were still fairly close to the pioneer era, you know. We weren’t that far removed from frontier existence, and frontier values tended to persist beyond frontier conditions. What frontiersmen ever expected his women to be frail or oh-so-refined or incapable of facing realities like childbirth or children dying or primitive nursing of wounds or fevers? You think frontier women were soft? Not in that way! And they weren’t expected to be and it wouldn’t have been any advantage to anyone that they should be. You’re confusing the expectation that they would be more spiritual, more connecting, more nurturing and expressive and openly loving (though nobody would have put it that way) with the idea that they were supposed to be less capable, less able to cope.

Look, why do you suppose I found Oak Hill suffocating? You had a shadow of the same experience! It was too refined, too boring, for words. It was too sheltered, too artificial, and a part of me wished I was living a generation earlier with Teddy Roosevelt in the Dakotas.

So — a part of you thought another part of you, the part that read voraciously and loved great music, and haunted art museums, was soft.

There was that warfare between my parents — you know that one too — and of course it played out. But remember, I wasn’t aware of all these contending groups within me any more than most people are. When any given one was in charge, it seemed to me that that was me, and when another took over, that was me. The contradictions went unexplained and even unnoticed.

And hence unreconciled — just as Gurdjieff said. At least, I think this is what he was describing. But I’m not ready to deal with him, and I feel like I’m almost having to hold him at arm’s length, here. Pain, Ernest.

It’s all well and good to smile at the stiff-upper-lip attitude to pain, but in practice that’s a very practical approach if not carried too far. You didn’t see us popping pills and haunting the emergency room (not that we even had them) and treating ourselves for a thousand imaginary ailments. We assumed health, and assumed that pain and sickness were a part of life, and we didn’t come apart when we experienced them. It wasn’t heroics until carried to too-great lengths.

So if you are all the time fishing, you have to expect that sooner or later something might happen and you get a hook in your finger, or you hurt yourself pulling in a huge fish, or something. It’s just part of the situation, and when you experience it, you deal with it.

But you had some downright strange accidents.

And a lot of unnoticed everyday incidents, like everybody else.

Oh, sure — but the effect on you?

Well, that is the effect, in a way. I expected that accidents happen, and I wasn’t devastated when they did. I was proud of my ability to cope, and I knew I could function under pain and I was reasonably proud of that too — but of the two, I was a lot prouder of the first, because anybody but a weakling could deal with pain when it came along, but not everybody could deal with emergencies.

I feel like we’ve scarcely touched the topics, but I’m worn out already. I see it’s my usual 70 minutes and — how many? — 10 pages. More tomorrow, maybe?

I am not going anywhere. Where would I go?

Fishing in the Gulf Stream?

It wouldn’t interfere with anything. We aren’t the subjects of time here in the way we are there.

All right. Next time.

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